World War II plane returns to action delivering hurricane supplies

3:02 p.m Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 Local

A 73-year-old World War II plane came out of semiretirement in Central Texas to deliver supplies to Hurricane Harvey victims.

The Bluebonnet Belle — a twin-engine propeller C-47 cargo plane built in 1944 — flew six missions on Labor Day weekend to deliver water, food, cleaning supplies and even dog food to people and their pets in Beaumont and Orange.

Volunteers from the Highland Lakes Squadron, a Burnet-based unit of the Commemorative Air Force, loaded 24,000 pounds of supplies on the plane, flying as far away as New Orleans to pick up the goods, they said. The plane had no mechanical trouble, said Rick Kelley, one of the pilots. It flew about 2,500 miles.

“She didn’t miss a lick,” said Kelley, a 54-year-old United Airlines pilot. The Commemorative Air Force is a nonprofit group based in Dallas that is committed to preserving U.S. combat airplanes.

The Highland Lakes Squadron owns the Bluebonnet Belle and usually only flies it about 30 hours per year in airshows, along with its other three vintage World War II airplanes, said Mark Davis, the 50-year-old squadron leader.

But when Hurricane Harvey hit, members of the squadron decided they wanted to help.

“We knew we could help out in ways other people couldn’t because we could haul a lot more cargo than other civilian airplanes,” said Davis, who also sells chemicals to the semiconductor industry.

Chris Dowell, 54, another of the pilots, said he volunteered because he lives in the Houston area and could see all the devastation around him. He knew he could get a closer view of the flooding because the Bluebonnet Belle has no air pressurization, so has to fly at lower altitudes where oxygen isn’t a problem, said Dowell, who is a pilot instructor

The first mission for the Bluebonnet Belle was Sept. 1, when it flew from its home base at the Burnet Municipal Airport to Georgetown to pick up supplies from a disaster relief organization called Sky Hope Network.

“Seeing it taxi out to do what it was made to do for the first time in 20 to 25 years was kind of emotional,” said David Bonorden, the squadron’s operations officer.

The mission was expensive because the Bluebonnet Belle costs $1,200 an hour to fly, including gas and maintenance costs, and the squadron pays for it through donations, said Bonorden, a 55-year-old senior technical program manager at Dell. “We weren’t sure how we were going to pay for it because we don’t have a lot of money, but we decided to take the risk on one load,” he said.

After the plane arrived in Beaumont for its first mission, however, the crew found out people urgently needed water and food and decided to keep flying, Bonorden said. They picked up water and food in Conroe and delivered it to Orange a few times before local officials told them what they really needed was cleaning supplies.

The C-47 then flew to New Orleans to pick up a load of cleaning supplies donated by a Commemorative Air Force unit called the Big Easy.

By the time the Harvey missions ended, the Bluebonnet Belle had flown about 14 hours and used 1,400 gallons of gas, Davis said. The squadron has already raised 75 percent of the operation’s cost through a donations page, he said.

The plane flew 75 missions in Europe and Asia during World War II, and it eventually was used by the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Other owners used it to haul freight before the squadron bought it in 2002 for $110,000, said Juan Jimenez, a 68-year-old operations engineer who also went on the Harvey missions.

“She’s not a glamorous plane, but Eisenhower said in the ’50’s that the C-47 was one of the five main weapons that won World War II,” said Jimenez, a retired systems engineer for BAE Systems.

Anyone who wants to see the Bluebonnet Belle in flight can watch the plane at the 26th annual Commemorative Air Force Bluebonnet Airshow starting at noon Saturday at the Burnet Municipal Airport, 2302 S. Water St.

The Highland Lake Squadron has even bigger plans for the plane in 2019, Davis said. It wants to fly her to Normandy for the re-enactment of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

“We have to raise $100,000 to do this,” Bonorden said.

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